In Filipino cooking, most of our dishes are named after the manner in which they are prepared. Thus, we have adobo and paksiw (cooking with vinegar and a variation of spices and seasonings); sigang (boiling with a sour fruit); kilaw (washing any fresh seafood with vinegar and eating it raw); ihaw (grill); prito (fry); laga (boil), etc.
It is to be noted, too, that a cooked dish conforms with the maker, and not a codified recipe. Hence, there’s infinite room for interpretation, depending on personal preference, availability of ingredients, religious beliefs, dietary and budgetary constraints. Not to mention the myriad of sawsawan or sauces available, to adjust the dish’s flavor to one’s liking. In fact, the eater is even expected to do it, with the presence of toyo, patis, suka, kalamansi, and sili on the table. Try asking for ketchup in a chef-driven restaurant and expect its chef to storm out of the kitchen and drive you away. Now I know why they’re called chef-driven restaurants (wink, wink).
I’ve always believed Filipino cuisine is perhaps one of the most democratic and egalitarian cuisines in the world. The Pinoy cook has no ego. It is an interactive cooking. It’s truly more fun cooking and eating in a Filipino kitchen.
Continuing my vicarious travels around the world in search of that elusive holy grail of Pinoy adobos, let’s take a bite into some of the more memorable adobo interpretations I’ve come across in actual tastings and Filipino cookbooks. Though one is as disparate as the next, they all share one thing in common: cooking with vinegar. And they all look toothsomely good!
I’d like to invite the reading public, too, to share their family’s adobo. The one you grew up with, its main ingredient, what vinegar is used (if known), how it is done, and what makes it so special to you. We’re interested to hear its narrative, not necessarily the recipe. After all, the only correct and best adobo, really, is your mother’s adobo. Period.
All jazzed-up: The self-proclaimed Adobo Queen and co-author of the Adobo Book, Nancy Reyes-Lumen, created her own signature adobo recipe. Aside from the usual ingredients of a classic adobo with soy sauce, she adds oyster sauce to balance the assorted acidity levels of all kinds of vinegars, adding some sweetness that Pinoys look for. It's an umami additive, she says. For the past several years Nancy has been residing in Houston, Texas, giving private cooking lessons on Pinoy cuisine. Her traditional and jazzed-up adobo classes are a hit in her adoptive home. She reports kids of all nationalities—Nigerian, Scots, English, German, Yankees—love it. The photo above was taken when she guested on my TV show, Chasing Flavors, four years ago.
Adobo, she painted: The late, well-loved painter Anita Magsaysay-Ho contributed this adobo recipe to the Adobo Book, published in 2004. Titled “Cornish hen adobo,” it calls for the imported, small, and roundish Cornish or spring chicken. It also uses apple cider vinegar as the acid of choice, as well as non-conventional green olives, button mushrooms, and quail eggs as garnishes. For seasonings, the usual garlic, black peppercorns, bay leaf, and soy sauce play their supporting roles.
Here's the million-peso question: Does the use of imported, non-traditional ingredients make it any less Filipino? Master food writer Doreen Fernandez wrote: “Traditional ways are wonderful, but new ways, when applied with understanding and sensitivity, can create a dish anew — without betraying the tradition.”
Disclosure: Although I followed Mrs. Ho’s recipe to the letter, it didn’t turn out brown enough to be as photogenic by simply boiling it, as per instructions. I took the liberty of broiling it further until it turned golden brown. The broiling also cut drastically the acidity of the cider vinegar, which I found a bit too strong initially. Alternatively, if using cider vinegar, its quantity should be cut by half because of its high acidity.
Remains of the day: For the record, it is the doyenne of Filipino restaurateurs, Glenda Rosales-Barretto of Via Mare Restaurant, who first served crispy adobo flakes way back in 1975. It was such a novelty when it first came out back then, being served as an appetizer for their caterings. Eventually, it found its way into the restaurant chain menu, due to popular demand. One can have the crispy flakes for breakfast (available all day) with garlic fried rice and scrambled eggs, or, as merienda topped on arroz caldo. It caught on with the public and became part of our national adobo repertoire. And to think all she had in mind was to please her dad, who was fond of crispy fried dishes. She fried some leftover shredded chicken adobo and voila, a new dish was born! Indeed, necessity is the mother of all inventions.
Adobong pusit sa gata ni Inay: In the book Our Table, Food Inspired by Family, Rhoda Faustino Fernandez, owner of the wildly popular Amber, shares her memories of Sunday lunches with her cousins at the Malabon house of their grandma, Rafaela Espiritu Morelos, whom they lovingly called Inay.
“Anong gusto mong ulam sa Linggo?” Inay would ask the young Rhoda.
“Pusit!” she’d always shout. Then her cousins would shout their respective favorites as well: “Sinigang na baka, adobong igat (eel), kaldereta and so on”. Not wanting to disappoint anyone, Inay would end up cooking all the requested dishes.
Rhoda believes that of all the many dishes Inay cooked for them, it is the adobong pusit sa gata that embodies Inay’s love for her family: sweet, sour, salty, and spicy.
Adobong a la eh! Chef Robby Goco wrote in an email interview about his beloved Taal adobo: “Lately, I have been interpreting it as one of the heirloom menu offerings at Green Pastures, as well as my brother Pio's tours in our ancestral house in Taal, Batangas. Aside from sinaing na tulingan, tawilis, Taal tapa and longganisa, the legend of Taal's adobong dilaw only grows over time. For us, it’s the best adobo we have ever tasted. Aside from the rich golden yellow color and the healthy antioxidant properties of the adobong dilaw (yellowish in color because of turmeric), the taste is distinctive. There is a wholesome roundness to the flavor of it. With the natural oils of the pork and chicken added to it, it tastes so savory-decadent and yet, it’s actually quite healthy. Over rice, it’s just... “Where have you been all my life!” And then the good ole memories come flooding in. At Green Pastures, we serve it with watercress, tomato confit, green beans cooked in duck fat, and black rice.”
Fear factor adobo: One of the contributors to the Adobo Book was the late Cely Kalaw, with her entry Adobong Balut (duck embryo). Tita Cely, as she was endearingly called, operated the mother of all Filipino eat-all-you-can buffets “The Grove – Luto ng Inay” in Makati City, way back in the 1970s. Among her specialties were a lot of Bicolano dishes with coconut milk, including Bicol Express, which she was the creator of, according to urban legend. Adobong balut was one of the staple favorites in the buffet spread, at a time when it was considered too pedestrian to serve in a restaurant.
A trilateral adobo: This was the adobo dish I presented during my talk at the first Madrid Fusion in Manila in 2015. I called it Pork Adobo Confit, which was served in our Downtown 1956 Café in Angeles City. I combined three cooking methods of Spanish marinating overnight with vinegar and spices, French confit by slow cooking submerged completely in oil, and panfrying with the adobo sauce to produce golden brown, crisp edges. A side of fresh, ripe mango, tomato and onion relish placed on top of grilled eggplant and salted duck egg, accompanies it. It follows the tradition of our grandparents of eating adobo with a ripe mango or latundan banana, as a counterpoint to the savory dish.
Adobo with a French accent: The adobo at the newly opened Haliya modern Filipino restaurant has the chicken twice cooked the traditional way with the use of soy sauce and cane vinegar, and grilled pineapple and shallot confit to lend some sweetness. The pineapples are compressed with pickling liquid and sugar, their natural sweetness and sourness adding balance to the dish. Baby bok choy,marble potatoes, and golden crispy garlic chips are also added, heightened with thick slices of decadently sinful seared duck foie gras. It has a rich adobo glaze just perfect for pouring over the white rice.
The classic taste of adobo is reinterpreted with the use of traditional and modern techniques. Once braised, cooked old-style and seared in oil, it undergoes sous vide for hours to lock in the flavors and ensure that it keeps its moisture before it’s served. It is presented with contemporary styling to further elevate the national dish to a premium gourmet adobo.
Haliya is at Nuwa Manila, City of Dreams, named after a Bicolano warrior goddess of the moonlight. Its chef de cuisine, Edmundo San Jose, is influenced by the traditional home-cooked meals of his mom, has various awards from local and international culinary competitions and 24 years of culinary experience in restaurant operations in the country and the Middle East.
Menage a trois: Cafe Juanita's Three-Way Adobo has all three adobo variants in one plate that would satisfy a most discerning adobo connoisseur, if such a person exists. Its main component is a slab of pork rib, slowly braised the way its owner, Dr. Boy Vazquez, learned it from his mother from Arayat, Pampanga. It is simmered with lots of garlic and a generous amount of umami-packed sauce. The skin and fat are buttery, gelatinously soft, while its meat is fall-off-the-bone tender. The second adobo is a meshwork of crisp adobo flakes. It is so fine and delicate, much closer to mahu or the Chinese meat floss, than the original shredded adobo strands of Via Mare. A third variant was added further: the adobong Bisaya. The latter is cooked until all the adobo sauce is reduced to almost dry, and the pork cubes will fry in its own fat. All three are a study in textural contrast, so different from each other yet bound together by the common flavors and aroma of Pinoy adobo. The good doctor’s Pampango flair and exuberance is seen in the artsy-fartsy eclectic interior and bohemian/devil-may-care ambiance, and extends to the meticulous care in presentation and flavors of his offerings.